Saying that its right to a nearly 500-year-old depiction of Adam and Eve is ironclad, the Norton Simon Art Foundation on Tuesday challenged an ownership rival to a federal court showdown over the work, which has hung in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena since 1976.
The suit is a preemptive strike against Marei von Saher of Connecticut and her family; the museum says she first came forward in 2001 to claim the diptych and has threatened to sue in recent press interviews.
"We believe firmly we have good title," said Walter Timoshuk, the museum's president.
The foundation wants a ruling that it is the work's rightful owner and an injunction prohibiting Von Saher from suing for ownership.
The foundation's suit tells the following story:
Created around 1530 by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, the painting on two wooden panels -- which Timoshuk said was valued at $24 million last year in an insurance appraisal -- passed during the first half of the 20th century from Czarist nobles to their Soviet usurpers, then on to Nazi overlords and wound up in the collection of one of Adolf Hitler's henchmen, Hermann Goering.
Before Goering, the panels belonged to Von Saher's father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch art dealer who bought them at auction from the Soviets in 1931. He fled Holland during the German invasion of 1940 but died in a shipboard accident. His firm sold them to the Nazis under duress.
In 1945, the U.S. Army seized Goering's collection, and "Adam" and "Eve" were returned to Holland. After prolonged negotiations, Goudstikker's widow reached a settlement with the Dutch government, in which the Cranach were kept by the Netherlands.
Then came a claim from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, an heir to the Russian aristocrats whose collection, including the Cranach diptych, was confiscated by the Soviets. In 1966, the Netherlands returned the work to him; in 1970 and 1971 he sold the two panels to museum founder Norton Simon for $800,000.
The foundation says that Dutch law and the 1966 ruling are binding in the U.S. and that, in any case, the statute of limitations has long run out for bringing a claim against the panels' purchase.
The suit says that the foundation and Von Saher went through mediation in 2005 and again in March but failed to reach an agreement.